From the flood of images accompanying Charles Landry’s opening presentation on Thursday morning, two stood out in particular. The first showed a man, sitting on the floor of a public building in Vancouver, working at a laptop balanced precariously on his knees. Next to this transient figure lay a bag printed with the word “Roots”. The second image seemed to show an archetypical co-working space. But on closer inspection it turned out to be a corporate-sanctioned experiment in the foyer of Antwerp’s biggest bank.
Charles Landry has built a career upon the analysis of such observations. In 1978 he founded the think-tank, consultancy and publishing house Comedia , from which he later developed the concept of the “creative city”. Whilst we’ve grown used to such terms (and possibly a little cynical), it’s important to note that Landry isn’t interested in spin and jargon: having established the methodological frameworks for measuring and evaluating what is now called the creative economy, his approach is rigorous and scientific. But there are probably three public versions of Charles Landry: the writer/scholar, the consultant, and the speaker.
His keynote was anything but dry and methodical, and perhaps illustrated his broad appeal on the global conference circuit. Interviewed on Skype prior to this year’s conference, Landry promised: “I hope to make you feel completely giddy.” He kept his word. A 45-minute, break-neck tour of the technology-driven phenomena shaping the world’s cities followed, held together not by one central, spectacular thesis, but a string of vibrant provocations meant to trigger politicians, town planners, investors, designers, architects, infrastructure specialists and grass-roots movements into asking, “How is it that we want to live?”.
Digitalisation: More than just an update of our city developing tools
The realisation here, and Landry’s deep concern, seems to be that digitalisation — just as with industrialisation before — isn’t simply a change of tools: it is a force which is rapidly transforming our understanding of space, place and even time itself. We are so used to our laptops and smartphones and the instant dissemination of information that we’re perhaps already unable to see how profoundly our societies are changing.
Working from a café in a city far from home; hiring an e-scooter with an app; collaborating via Slack with colleagues you’ve never met face-to-face; bringing your scattered family together in a group-chat: all peculiar sets of behaviours unique to our time, suddenly embedded within the ageing physical and bureaucratic infrastructures of our cities. We need people like Landry to step back, take a broad look at the world, and remind us that the “fragility and complexity” of our realities needs to be actively managed with “curiosity, imagination and creativity”, not just in a business-as-usual fashion.
More than a few of us might have felt a little ambushed by Landry’s passionate presentation. It was a nebulous, but nevertheless potent appeal in the first hour of this year’s TYPO: off-topic for hardcore type-nerds, but a vital slice of big-context to help recalibrate our sense of how designers fit into the grand scheme of things. Many cities have already woken up to the economic meaning of the creative industries (worth 33 billion Euros in Berlin), but they still need to be convinced of the potential creative thinking poses for the civic realm. Hopefully some of us will rise to the occasion.